The Psychology of Meditation
Although New Age religions have tried to create a novel monopoly on meditation and spirituality, flaunting their peculiar diets and magic crystals, meditation isn’t a practice without real, physical results. For example, consider the brain’s default mode network, (or DMN) which composes the brain’s midline regions, mostly the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. This chunk of the brain is responsible for, among other things, our capacity for self representation. When we think about ourselves, the activity in this area increases. Making judgments about yourself also increases activity in the DMN, as opposed to making judgment’s about others. Those who focus on loving kindness meditation, also called metta, have shown decreased activity in the DMN. There are correlations between the years of experience meditating and the decrease of activity in the DMN.
There are other areas of the brain that can also be affected by meditation. The practice is linked to increased gray matter thickness and cortical folding in the brain. Just like with the DMN studies, these changes tend to correlate with years of experience. While these studies can only be associations, and DO NOT imply causations, it seems to explain the kinds of subjective and emotional changes that seasoned meditators tend to speak about.
The Philosophy of Meditation
Most meditation practices have been fostered in either a Hindu or Buddhist context, which explains why meditation novices would rather flock to Nepal as opposed to Rome to learn the secrets behind meditation. The Buddha spoke quite persistently about consciousness and its connections to meditation. What was distinct about the Buddha was the way he viewed consciousness as a selfless vat of stimuli; that we experience, rather than perform. This distinction, he argued, was the cause of mass confusion among the human race. Consider the parable below .
“ A man is struck in the chest with a poison arrow. A surgeon rushes to his side to begin the work of saving his life, but the man resist these ministrations. He first wants to know the name of the fletcher who fashioned the arrow’s shaft, the genus of the wood from which it was cut, the disposition of the man who shot it, the name of the horse upon which he rode, and a thousand other things that have no bearing upon his present suffering or his ultimate survival.”
What the parable is telling us is that the man isn’t focusing on what’s important in the present moment. He’s drifted away by thoughts that aren’t pertinent to the current situation. The Buddha thought our consciousness worked in a similar manner. The practices of Theravada Buddhism (the oldest school of Buddhism) sought to make trainees have a deeper interaction with their thoughts. To notice them, their contents, how they change or fall away, and how new thoughts emerge. Meditation wasn’t necessary to find ways to have this new experience, but the Buddha believed this was the most efficient way to craft our new experiences.